Jamaal May: Interview Highlights

My interview with Jamaal May was jam-packed, as those of you who already read the full interview transcript know. For those who have a bit less time, this post dives into some of the topics we discussed that I found to be most interesting. We did the interview over instant messaging, so what you’re seeing is 99% exact on what was said.

If you don’t already know who Jamaal May is, check out my spotlight page on him. If you do already know him, be sure you subscribe to his various platforms. (Scroll to the bottom of this page for links.)

Highlights from the Interview with Jamaal May

Here are my personal highlights from the interview:  page vs stage poetry, liminal spaces, poetic torque, the purpose of art, and definitions of poetry.

Page vs Stage Poetry

Core takeaways: Page and stage poetry are wildly different beasts, but working within the strictures of traditional form can improve one’s sense of the musicality of language and otherwise empower stage poetry by stripping away the devices sometimes found in the genre.

Rob D YoungRob D Young: You work in a territory that often crosses, blurs, or rejects the lines between poetry of the stage and poetry of the page. Your video of “I do have a seam” is a wonderful example of this.

What are your thoughts on working in these different forms and contexts?

Jamaal May (academic)Jamaal May: […] The page became an important goal for me because I realized what I could do in slam was limited by the format in some ways. I was fortunate enough to recognize early that slam had a ceiling and that I’d have to be proactive about learning more about the field of poetry as a whole.

This may seem paradoxical, but one of the reasons I’m able to blur that line, and why I suspect many can’t, is because I started off treating [page poetry and slam poetry] as very different things. I started studying verse under a mentor, Vievee Francis, after I was already making my living as a poet and hip hop artist. Mostly a poet though.

I started from scratch and wrote poems that weren’t performable by any stretch of the imagination. Limitations can be a good way to grow. It’s like training with weighted clothes. Vievee didn’t let me use rhyme and repetition for a long time. That forced me to understand the music of a poem better. I also had to learn other ways to make a poem work, like careful diction and deft rhetorical moves. This is of course all things that are useful to performance poetry as well, but to see it I had to strip away some of the more glaring devices.

[…] Once I had the lay of the land, I slowly started erasing my self-imposed divisions. […] Now I don’t think I have poems I wouldn’t be comfortable reading anywhere or poems that aren’t publishable. […] But it started with dissecting what worked in one format, what didn’t, and what was universal. Understanding the way performance work tends to wrap things up at the end, versus how work on the page should open up and resonate was vital to finding poems that have emotional closure, without shutting down neatly, so that the poems can be reread and keep resonating.

Liminal Spaces and Poetry as an Act of Expansion

Core takeaways: Our minds often try to simplify reality for the sake of survival. Poetry returns to the messy liminal spaces of paradox and contradiction as it seeks to re-expand reality, working inside the non-binary gradient that contains a more true reflection of human experience and identity.

RDY: I don’t recall exactly what you [at the Salt Lake City Slam], but the note I scrawled on my napkin was this: “We create contradictory ideas wherein we seek to capture the real experience in the liminal space between.”

Can you unpackage, correct, and expand on what I jotted down?

JM: No doubt. A friend of mine, Melissa Roberts, pointed out in a class at Warren Wilson that (and I’m totally paraphrasing and not doing this justice) our brains are designed for survival, but that design, in a way, obscures the way the world really works. For example, categorization is necessary to staying alive: berries=yummy, sabertooth tigers=dead. But so much of our lives, especially our engagements with one another, are not easily demarcated.

People we love make feel like shit. People we hate know how we like to be touched. We’re terrified of things that bring us true joy and we can laugh at funerals. Poetry, in a way, struggles towards that messiness as a way to make sense of the world. That gradient between all things is where true existence is. I think this is why metaphor is so important to poetry and so prevalent in our day to day lives. The experience of considering that liminal space where two unlike things cross over where our complicated and truer selves live.

I think we resist this space, because of the dangers that lie therein, while simultaneously craving it. This is why poetry has such a small slice of the culture pie, but won’t go away. It’s never been popular on the scale of music or film but people keep finding it. […] The world is a gray, complicated place and [people] want to get away from that. But part of us need to check in with that reality. Some us can’t help but build a house and live there, so we make challenging art.

RDY: As an attempt, in some sense, to re-expand a world that has been made two-dimensional for the sake of simple, linear, survivalistic comprehension?

JM: Well put.

Poetic Torque

Core takeaways: Part of the power of poetry comes from its “torque,” or its ability to create movement by causing differing elements to work against one another. While metaphor is just one of the many ways we can create poetic torque, it serves as a good example of the process:  In a metaphoric construction, what is important isn’t merely what the two things being compared have in common, but how they are different.

RDY: The other element of what you talked about at the SLC Slam that I made a specific note about was “torque.” You mentioned the need for poetry to have torque, and the idea caught me. What do you mean when you say “torque,” and how can we imbue our poetry with it?

JM: This is one of those words [where] applying its general definition to the idea of poetics immediately reveals how it can useful: It is a twisting force that tends to cause rotation. Something needs to working against something else in a poem for there to be rotation. There has to be rotation for it go anywhere. I think that gets to the heart of it without me elaborating too much.

As to how to imbue poems with torque, the methods are legion. Metaphor is a good an example as any. In a metaphoric construction, what is important isn’t merely what the two things being compared have in common, but how they are different.

Black like a shadow.

Doesn’t have the same weight as:

Black like a clarinet.

Shadow is too close to black to have any torque. There’s no rotation. We don’t go anywhere.

One can’t think of a clarinet without seeing its shimmering onyx and all those polished valves. That turns against the general idea of black.

Purpose of Art/Poetry

Core takeaways: Within our social ecosystems, poetry is one of the healthiest nutrients because it helps re-establish our inherent human interconnectivity.

RDY: You already answered one of my [standard] questions: “What’s the point of poetry in an overarching, possibly melodramatic, universal sense?” If you have something to add to that, feel free.

JM: I can go deeper into the value of poetry, which to me can be expanded to include art in general. It begins with the supposition that people are connected. Cruelty and apathy are dependent upon the notion that we are not. Genocide, land theft, slavery, drone attacks, torture . . . none of this can exist without convincing large groups of people that “they are not us.” Engaging in art makes one participate on some level in the act of being connected to something outside of the self that is actively speaking to the self.

Not everyone comes out of this engagement a better person, but try to find a hundred people who did not. Art can change a person. It’s interesting that this point seems debatable when so many people attest to being changed by it. The more people that are thinking and feeling their way through the world in the way poetry encourages, the better off we’ll all be. […] We’re like a social ecosystem and poetry is one of our more healthy nutrients.

Definitions of Poetry

Core takeaways:poem is a piece of writing in which the line is the central element rather than the sentence. It has an attention to music, compression, and nuanced language. A prose poem engages the line by doing away with, allowing the syntactical construction of the sentence to demarcate the music of the line.

RDY: What makes a poem a poem? Is it found in the form, in the lyric qualities, or is there something deeper that allows verse or prose to transcend, becoming something that is essentially a capital-P Poem?

JM: A poem is a piece of writing in which the line is the central element rather than the sentence. It has an attention to music, compression, and nuanced language. Not a sexy definition, but I think it serves. I kind of roll my eyes when people try to paint anything they decide to be poetry as poetry. I really do think there is a such thing as a poem. Can it take on many shapes, forms, and aesthetics? It better. But it matters to me that practitioners of the craft acknowledge that there is a craft to practice.

RDY: […] Do you believe in the prose poem?

JM: Yes. […] A prose poem still engages the line, by doing away with [it]. A true prose poem doesn’t read like prose. Line breaks add emphasis to specific words. [In] a poem where that’s not desired or is taking away from what the poem should do, a prose form may work better. In a prose poem, the syntactical groupings demarcate the music rather than the line. This happens in lineated poems too, but in a prose poem, they are the central groupings, which may be the poet’s desired effect.

Again, I encourage anyone who hasn’t already done so to check out Jamaal’s site, his YouTube pagehis mailing list, and his books.

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Write on,

Rob D Young